Over the past few winters, I've been lucky enough to take part in the annual Mark Martin Ice Fishing Vacation School hosted by walleye pro Mark Martin and his staff of professional anglers on the beautiful Saginaw Bay. While my invitations were sent to me as a member of the press, I also considered myself a learning student (and one with limited ice fishing experience!). So, as a bit of an ice-fishing rookie, let me be the first to say: nothing compares to learning from a true master of the art of fishing, and I did not come away disappointed.
Before attending Mark Martin's Ice Fishing Vacation School, my previous "experiments" included the usual forays onto the hard water for crappies, bluegills, and largemouth bass, with a few "saugeyes" thrown in for good measure, and good eatin' later. And even though I had fished in several states and a couple of Canadian provinces for walleyes and smallies, my first trip to Saginaw Bay was my first shot at pulling both species up through the ice.
The school itself began with a seminar conducted by Mark at Linwood Beach Marina on Saginaw Bay, where the visiting anglers were instructed on techniques, tackle, rigging, safety, and all were given a bag of free tackle products from Berkley, Rapala, Northland tackle and other sponsors. Then, with a trip to nearby Frank's Great Outdoors (where you can find everything under the sun... or, in this case, ice) we were well stocked and outfitted for the next two days on the ice.
Each morning we departed from the marina on snowmobiles and quads, making a several-mile run to productive spots that the savvy pros had scouted for us in advance. After drilling many holes with our StrikeMaster augers and setting upshanties, we tied on lures such as Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoons, Rapala jigging lures and a variety of lures from TTI Blakemore (the red hooks work great).
And did we catch anything? You'd better believe it.
This ol' farm boy sat in Mark Martin's ultra-comfortable Otter Outdoors shelter and jigged up his first of several walleyes through the ice. Then, to add the "icing" on top, I also pulled up my first bronzeback, a respectable 2.5-pounder.
On day two, the total number of bites for all anglers and students was somewhere around 300. The fish literally came in waves. The scenario went something like this: catch a fish, unhook it, snap a few photos, pour a cup of coffee and keep your lure in the water, then wait for the next hookup. It was not unusual to look out the opening in a shelter and see several anglers tossing fish out onto the ice. When you saw that, you could expect a bite at any moment.
The fishing is always incredible in the Saginaw Bay, but during that particular year's school, the water was exceptionally clear, allowing us to spot the fish as they came in to look at the lures. Even so, we still needed to tempt their tastebuds by tipping our spoons with Berkley Gulp Fish Heads. One standout technique involved dropping the lure to the bottom, bouncing it, then raising it a few inches and giving it a few twitches. If that failed, we'd drop a minnow-tipped spoon for jigging and in the adjacent hole drop a minnow-tipped spoon, which was deadsticked. The only action imparted to it was an occasional tap on the rod. Often, more strikes came on the "dead" lure than on the jigged rod.
Pro angler and Vacation School founder Mark Martin commented that there has been a change in the predator/prey relationship in the Saginaw Bay, and that, over the years, the alewives (once a walleye food source and also readily gobbled by the walleye fry) have disappeared from the Bay. This now allows the walleyes to turn to other food sources, such as gobies and other "nuisance" species, and it also enables the walleyes to spawn without so many of their fry being gobbled by alewives. Martin went on to say that he believes Pure Michigan's Saginaw Bay to be one of the premier sites for catching several species of fish.
My return trips to this fabled body of water have had mixed results. As with any fishing experience, some years were great, some were mediocre, but there was always enough good fish caught to keep things fun. Saginaw Bay fishing offers top quality for both the novice and experienced angler, and, all in all, it was an unforgettable, quintessential Pure Michigan experience.
If an ice fishing vacation on the eastern side of Michigan sounds appealing to you, be sure to learn more and sign up for the 2018 Mark Martin Ice Fishing Vacation School, February 18-21, 2018. For daily fishing reports, be sure to check with local Linwood Marina; their knowledgeable staff is happy to oblige.